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Green Or Gone

What's That Smell? The Perfume Industry's Upcycling Savoir Faire

The circular economy is a hot trend, being embraced by everything from fashion to home decor. But one industry has been upcycling for decades. And the benefits and potentials go far beyond the environment. Soon, your perfume might help you fight stress and even wrinkles.

​"In perfumery, the implementation of upcycling spans several years and has occurred in three major phases"

"In perfumery, the implementation of upcycling spans several years and has occurred in three major phases"

wearefirmenich / Instagram
Johanne Courbatère de Gaudric

What do orange peels, a Texas-based sawmill and rosewater have in common?

Well, all three are part of the upcycling system developed by the perfume industry. This version of recycling, which transforms a waste product by adding value to it, is well known in fashion and home decor. But perfumery has been using the technique for generations, and not just for environmental reasons.


So what does “upcycling'' look like in the perfume industry? Just as textile scraps are reused to make clothes, materials are "upcycled" from the processing of raw materials to obtain new ones. These can come from the manufacture of the perfume itself, such reprocessing rose petals that were once discarded after distillation.

But upcycling can also take the form of waste from other industries, such as food waste that used to be composted or sent to combustion, or even from sectors using wood in large quantities (such as furniture, construction, or paper).

Some French history

Xavier Brochet, director of innovation for natural products at Firmenich, the world's largest fragrance business, explains that in perfumery, the implementation of upcycling dates back to the increasing industrialization of perfumery in the early 20th century, when the production of ingredients began to be rationalized to increase their yield and quality while optimizing costs.

At that time, the main processing centers that were based around Grasse, the center of the industry in southern France, gradually dispersed and moved directly to where the raw materials were produced. "This made it possible to reduce costs related to transport, packaging, conservation," Brochet explains. "Some essences then started to be developed from 'waste' from other industries using the same materials as us.”

For instance, for essential oils from woods such as cedar, the distilleries moved directly to Texas or Virginia, to the same sites as the sawmills that process lumber for furniture or construction. Because of this, fresh sawdust was available in large quantities, of high quality and immediately available for distillation.

Over the years, the system extended to large biomasses, such as spices or citrus fruits, which have become important raw materials for perfumery.

The second major evolution of upcycling in perfumery came much later, around the year 2000: "At that time, our ambition was to extend the concept to other ingredients, outside the major biomasses," says Brochet. This was also the time when the issue became an environmental one.

Among the ingredients that would incorporate upcycling at the time would be the vanillin, a synthetic note with a gourmand smell of vanilla. First synthesized in 1874 from the sap of conifers, it is one of the raw materials that benefited from the combined advances of biotechnology and the circular economy. It could be produced in a sustainable way since it was obtained from residues of the paper industry via cellulose, or from the food industry via the ferulic acid found in rice.

Scent of innovation

The final key element in the success of upcycling is the potential that new raw materials bring to the ingredients palette available in perfumery.

LMR laboratories based in Grasse, which specializes in natural ingredients and was founded by Monique Rémy, is exemplary in this respect.

It was mainly a question of offering perfumers notes that were both new and effective.

"One of the first products Monique launched in the late 1980s was a beeswax extract obtained by collecting beehive cells. It was followed by ingredients such as carrot essence, obtained thanks to the sorting differences of the seed companies," says Bertrand de Préville, general manager of LMR.

"At the time, the environmental issue was not a factor. It was mainly a question of offering perfumers notes that were both new and effective. We have developed a whole collection of ingredients, some of which are amazing, like the Ultimate Rose.

It is a rose absolute obtained from flowers after distillation, the smell of which is totally different from the classic extracts. It offers spicy and fruity notes reminiscent of osmanthus. Another product is an oak wood species, Oakwood, developed with the Seguin Moreau cooperage in Cognac, which has been making oak barrels for spirits since the 19th century.

By processing the unused shavings, we obtained a raw material with syrupy accents, which smells of both fireplace and barely caramelized vanilla."

Many innovations have thus seen the light of day in recent years without claiming to be upcycling. This is the case of the leather infusion developed by Louis Vuitton in 2016 for its perfumes. While visiting the leather goods workshops, Jacques Cavallier-Belletrud, the perfumer of the house, had the idea of a leather extract, obtained in a natural way from discarded parts.

Piles of coarse and fine sawdust lie on the site of a sawmill.

For essential oils from woods such as cedar, the distilleries moved directly to Texas or Virginia, to the same sites as the sawmills that process lumber for furniture or construction.

Philipp Von Ditfurth/dpa/ ZUMA

Saving the planet, fighting wrinkles

Composition laboratories, brands and all the major players in the industry agree that upcycling is at the heart of their current concerns.

"Today's end customers expect more than just nice-smelling perfumes. They now want products that embrace the environmental cause and provide additional benefits related to well-being," says Bertrand de Préville. Each company has its own strategy for meeting these specifications.

In the labs, acquisitions and collaborations with other industries are accelerating the diversification of the business.

Thanks to Diana Food, a food extracts producer, Symrise, a producer of flavors and fragrances, was able to develop extracts for perfumery from vegetable waste such as asparagus or leeks. IFF is testing the cosmetic and aromachological benefits of its upcycled materials. For example, Oakwood (from oak) has relaxing properties and promotes memory. Turmeric boosts mood.

As for Givaudan, the Swiss group is multiplying its acquisitions and collaborating with start-ups to develop multi-purpose ingredients to amplify the benefits of fragrances. One of them is Vetivyne. Derived from the roots of the vetiver plant after distillation, it is said to have anti-aging properties and to elongate the life of fragrances.

Will the next eau de toilette be anti-wrinkle and de-stressing thanks to upcycling? Keep your nose in the wind...

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